Exact age and stories remain a mystery

By Eric Frey, National Park Service

Although the Battle of Horseshoe Bend occurred 205 years ago, the Horseshoe Bend National Military Park may have recently discovered a living witness to the battle.

Due east of what is referred to as Gun Hill, where Andrew Jackson positioned his artillery unit, an American beech (Fagus grandifolia) tree is situated on a slope between the battlefield and the Tallapoosa River. The tree is tall but blends in with the surrounding high canopy. Its trunk is thick and shows scars of previous visitors who felt the need to leave their initials in its smooth bark. Its roots are sinewy, starting 5 or 6 feet above the ground; and then, spreading out over the surface like octopus tentacles, eventually burying themselves in the soil and anchoring the tree.

At first glance, it has all the characteristics of a typical old tree, but upon further reflection, the tree appears to have a story to share.

Compiling Evidence

Much of the battlefield and the land surrounding it quickly became deforested agricultural fields after the forced removal of the Creek Indians in the 1830s. This would limit the areas that could possibly have a 200-year-old tree. An aerial photo of Horseshoe Bend dated 1929 was found in the park’s museum collection. If the aerial photo showed forested area where the beech tree stands, it would provide at least some circumstantial evidence of the tree surviving this time period.

Witness trees are most often identified by primary sources: a photograph of the aftermath at Gettysburg; a diary or letter that mentions the landscaping around a home; or a bullet found lodged in a trunk. Since photography was not around at the time of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, and with the tree’s location being on the very periphery of the battlefield, primary source materials would prove fruitless with this beech tree.

HBNMP Park Ranger Eric Frey reached out to a number of people that could possibly provide some alternative ideas to determining the date of a tree.

Paul Dolinsky, chief of the National Park Service’s Historic American Landscape Survey, began the Witness Tree Protection Program in 2006 to help identify, document and preserve historically and biologically significant trees within the Washington, D.C., park sites.

During a brief phone call, he emphasized the NPS principle of not using any invasive methods, such as boring; however, he did recommend doing some measurements of the tree and looking into research on beech tree growth rates. This would possibly provide a very general idea of the tree’s age, Dolinsky said.

Frey took his advice and measured the trunk’s DBH, diameter at breast height, to be approximately 46 inches. One growth rate found in the research stated that in order to determine a beech tree’s age, multiply the DBH by 6, which would put this tree at around 276 years old. Given Alabama’s warmer climate and longer growing season, this was considered a high estimate but an estimate nonetheless.

Since all anecdotal evidence indicated that it could, in fact, be a witness tree, Frey contacted Dr. Matthew Therrell and the University of Alabama’s Dendrochronology Research Lab for any additional ideas. Along with the measurements, Frey also sent Dr. Therrell a photo of the tree. In that photo, he noticed a large secondary branch that had recently broken off.

“If you could send me a slice of that limb, we could at least establish a minimum age for the tree and also extrapolate somewhat from that,” said Brian Robinson, the park’s sawyer extraordinaire.

One hour later, Frey had a slice of the limb ready to send to the lab.

A few days later, he received an email from Dr. Therrell, who estimated the tree to be between 250 and 300 years old, in his professional opinion, based on number of rings, height and overall size.

Silent Sentinel

As a Magic 8-Ball might predict, all signs pointed to the beech tree having been rooted on the slope as the Red Stick Creeks and Andrew Jackson’s allied forces fought above on the flat ground in 1814.

Secrets have been kept for centuries, and many will continue to be held by the mute sentinel; but now that the park staff is aware of its existence, it will continue to search for more answers.

The human history of Horseshoe Bend National Military Park has always been in the forefront of visitors’ minds and at the center of the park’s interpretive focus, but employees continue to discover that the natural and cultural stories are integrated and always have been. Perhaps the Creek Indians who lived in the area used the leaves from this same beech tree for medicinal purposes, or passenger pigeons that were hunted to extinction may have once roosted in its crown.

Although a large limb lies at its base, the tree has survived disease, tornadoes and drought. Although it bears the scars of inconsiderate hands marking initials into its side, the hands of man have spared it from the saw blade. Its resilience is not unlike the Creek Indians that were defeated in battle – forced to leave this land, and yet continue to thrive in Oklahoma as a sovereign nation of 84,000 citizens. The beech tree shows its age but continues to be a silent sentinel, standing watch along the banks of the river.

During a visit to the park, consider walking the nature trail and seeing this living witness to so much history. Looking up, don’t expect it to openly share its exact age or all of its stories; sometimes silence can be a story of its own. 

To receive more information about Horseshoe Bend National Military Park, sign up for its monthly newsletter or email friendsofhorseshoebend@gmail.com. Friends of Horseshoe Bend is an all-volunteer organization that promotes HBNMP and educates the public about Creek Indian culture and history.